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'Serial returners': How COVID and free shipping made over-buying the new norm

Paul Roberts, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Last week, customers at the UPS Store in Seattle's Interbay neighborhood got a pretty good demonstration of what the global supply chain looks like when you try to run it backward.

The first Monday of the year marks the traditional start of the holiday return season, which this year is expected to break records for returned purchases — and by late afternoon, the line of box-bearing UPS customers snaked nearly out the door.

"Oh my goodness — wow," said Erin Metzger, half a dozen returns in hand, as she surveyed the crowd and the Jenga-like towers of outbound packages behind the counter. "I did not expect this at all."

"It comes in waves," employee Rebecca Yazzie said. "It'll be quiet for a little bit and then we'll get a ton of people all at once."

Those waves were also being felt across town at Sip and Ship, a coffee-shop-and-mailbox-services combo in Greenwood, where holiday returns are already 20%-25% ahead of last year. That's just "so far," cautioned owner Diana Naramore as she stood next to an 8-foot stack of U.S. Postal Service returns. "I mean, we're just starting."

While January has always been send-it-back season, COVID-19 has supersized the trend. Of the record $222 billion Americans spent on online holiday purchases this season, 30%, or nearly $67 billion, will be sent back, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate firm that also focuses on retail logistics. That's a 13% increase versus 2020 and 40% versus 2019.

 

That extra load is causing friction for shippers, many of which were already struggling with staffing shortages amid the pandemic.

It's also pressuring retailers, especially smaller brick-and-mortar shops that went online to survive COVID but often can't afford the generous return policies popularized by mega-players like Amazon and Walmart.

"If we paid all the shipping costs and then we have to pay to have that item returned and then we have to pay additionally to send a new item ... it's not sustainable," says Brittney Geleynse of Clover Toys in Ballard, which, like many smaller retailers, has had to scrutinize its return policy as its internet sales have bloomed.

In some ways, this year's return surge is a story about the ill-timed arrival of omicron, which pushed many holiday shoppers away from brick-and-mortar retail and toward e-commerce, experts say.

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